Thursday 27 September 2012

Summer round-up: Olympics, heritage and war

My summer blog-break has lasted rather longer than I'd planned but it doesn't mean that BISI's been inactive for the duration. Now that it's definitely Not Summer any more—as of last week the central heating is on and I'm biking to work in full-fingered gloves—it's time for a quick re-cap of what's been happening in and around the Institute.

The British Academy, our administrative home, was taken over for the duration of the Olympic Games by Bosco, the Russian fashion house behind the infamous Spanish Olympic team uniforms (and which seems to have almost no web presence, not even a Wikipedia page; but who'd blame them for keeping such a low profile?). It gave the Academy a welcome income boost and afforded our administrators much amusement as they crept into work via the basement entrance.

I'm ashamed to say that the lure of Jess Ennis, Mo Farah, and co. kept me away from the Iraq Day on 4 August. But in my defence, I am a massive track and field fan, and that was surely one of the greatest triumphs for UK athletics in many years. By all accounts Iraq Day was also a great success, though. There are some gorgeous photos of the event at the Demotix website.

I did manage to attend my own lecture in Newcastle on 14 August though, you'll be relieved to know, but perhaps that's because the Olympics was already over by then... Despite a unexpectedly glorious evening, which people really shouldn't have wasted listening to me, I spoke to a full lecture theatre at the Great North Museum on the importance of Iraqi cultural heritage. We then went upstairs for a viewing of the Catastrophe! exhibition and some engaged and passionate debate. A very energetic and committed group of young Iraqi men and women, from all over the country and currently studying at the University of Newcastle, especially impressed and inspired me.

Earlier that day, Yanjing Zhang, a student on the university's Cultural Heritage MA, recorded an interview with me for a video-dissertation she was making for her coursework. Although she'd known very little about the Iraq situation before starting her course, over the year she had begun to explore the parallels between the Iraqi situation and the problems that her own country, China, is facing in regard to protecting cultural heritage. Here, then, was living proof of the argument I was hoping to make in my lecture: that Iraqi cultural heritage matters globally, not just because of our shared humanity but because of the lessons that can be learned worldwide from how it has been treated and mistreated over the past ten years and more. I wish Yanjing all the best with her dissertation, which is due to be submitted any day now.

As I've mentioned before, these activities are part of a much broader campaign, spearheaded by my Newcastle host Peter Stone, to persuade the the UK government to ratify the Hague Convention. The ministry responsible, the Department of Culture, Media and Sport, lost its Secretary of State Jeremy Hunt in the recent Cabinet reshuffle. We will have to see how urgently his successor Maria Miller will table a bill; she seems to have other priorities at the moment. But at least DCMS no longer has the Olympics to worry about.

Meanwhile, the news from Syria continues to be grim. After the bombing of Aleppo citadel in August (pictured here in happier times, when I was holidaying there in 2006), Time magazine has recently reported how ancient artefacts are being traded for weapons, showing once again how deeply embedded cultural heritage is in modern conflict. It is absolutely not a distraction to be lobbying for its protection during wartime but an important element in safeguarding individuals' and communities' lives during battle and their livelihoods and lifestyles once peace is restored.

Iraqi, British and US veterans all took part in September's Paralympics. Both the Paralympics and the Olympics are, of course, very visible reminders of the long-lasting legacy of ancient cultural heritage--and now help to ameliorate the effects of contemporary warfare, in a small but significant way. Yet another reason for preserving ancient remains for the benefit of future generations. I must add that to the list of Hague Convention lobbying points before Olympic fever fades altogether...

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